Naming Conventions on the Malay Peninsula

Lincoln Davidson

Naming Conventions on the Malay Peninsula

In previous posts, we’ve explored naming conventions in the Middle East and Latin America. As investigators, it’s important to understand what you should look for and what information you can glean from a person’s name on a corporate record.

Public records from the Malay Peninsula, which contains Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, pose a different set of challenges. For centuries, traders from around the world passing through the region influenced the peninsula’s development. The legacy of colonial control by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British empires also casts a long shadow on the region. Combined, these factors have resulted in a wide variety of naming conventions and some unique syncretic practices that can stymie investigators unfamiliar with the region.

Why Are the Naming Conventions So Complicated?

The Malay Peninsula long has been home to numerous ethnic groups and languages. Many of these languages are part of totally different language families. In addition, the peninsula exists at a global trade crossroads. For millennia, the Strait of Malacca, which borders the Malay Peninsula to the southwest, has been a crucial chokepoint for commerce between northeast Asia and the rest of the world.

Due to its position, history, and culture, naming conventions on the Malay Peninsula are subject primarily to Malay, Arabic, and Chinese influences. The resulting system is common in Malaysia and Singapore but can be difficult for analysts to interpret.

Malay Naming Conventions

Typically, ethnically Malay people on the peninsula have a personal (given) name and a patronym derived from their father’s personal name. Compare this to the nasab frequently used by people in the Gulf states. And while most people with Malay names do not list a surname on public records, some do.

For men, the given name and the patronym often are separated by the word bin, derived from the Arabic word meaning “son of.” For women, the given name and patronym often are separated by the word binti, meaning “daughter of.” Binti is sometimes spelled binte and occasionally abbreviated as “bte.”

Rather than bin and binti, some individuals will use the Malay terms for “son of” (anak lelaki) and “daughter of” (anak perempuan). On corporate records in Malaysia, you may see just the abbreviations “A/L” and “A/P.”

It’s also common to abbreviate some given names in writing. For example, Mohammed could become “Mohd,” and Abdul could become “Abd.”

Titles in Malay Names

A final aspect of Malay names that can be challenging to understand is the use of titles. Particularly in Malaysia, a number of titles can be written as part of an individual’s name on corporate records.

Some of these are common in other parts of the Islamic world—such as the title Haji for individuals who have made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Others are titles bestowed on individuals by the federal or state governments of Malaysia. These include titles such as Tan Sri and Datuk. On corporate records, you may find these either before or after a person’s name.

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Name, in Many Forms

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s name provides a useful example of many of these naming conventions. His name appears a variety of ways on Malaysian company records:

– Mohd Najib Bin Tun Abdul Razak (Y.B. Dato’Sri)
– Mohd Najib Bin Tun Abdul Razak, Dato’ Sri
– Mohd Najib Bin Tun Abdul Razak, YAB Dato’ Sri
– Mohd Najib Bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, Dato’ Sri
– Mohd Najib Bin Tun Hj Abd Razak, Dato’ Sri
– Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Bin Tun Abdul Razak

These names include various pieces of Najib’s full name: Yang Berhormat Dato’ Sri Haji Mohammad Najib Bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak.

The key parts here are his given name (Mohammad Najib), his patronym (his father’s name was Abdul), and his surname (Razak). Here is what the other parts mean:

Yang Berhormat: title meaning “the honorable,” generally reserved for members of the federal or state legislatures
Dato’ Sri: Title conferred by the ruler of the state of Pahang
Haji: Title indicating that Najib has completed the Hajj
Mohammad Najib: Najib’s given name
Bin: Marker connecting Najib’s given name to his patronym
Tun: Title awarded by the federal government of Malaysia; Najib’s father, Abdul Razak, holds this title
Haji: Title indicating that Najib’s father has completed the Hajj
Abdul: Given name of Najib’s father
Razak: Najib’s surname

Chinese Naming Conventions

It’s not surprising that Chinese naming conventions also are common on the Malay Peninsula. Chinese people are the second largest ethnic group in Malaysia and the largest ethnic group in Singapore. In general, these are the same as the naming conventions used in China. However, several common differences are worth noting.

One Word vs. Two Words

Like in China, Chinese surnames generally are written before given names. Unlike in China, people with Chinese names on the Malay Peninsula typically write their given name as two separate words. For example, a person whose surname is Zhao and personal name is Yuanren might write his name as Zhao Yuan Ren rather than Zhao Yuanren.

Romanization Systems

Chinese names are written in Chinese characters in their native form. They have to be romanized—converted into Latin characters—to be written on public records in countries that use the Latin alphabet. In China, the most commonly used romanization system is Hanyu Pinyin. However, many Chinese people on the Malay Peninsula use a romanization system other than Hanyu Pinyin.

As a result, a major challenge facing investigators looking for individuals from China on the Malay Peninsula (or vice versa) is the variety of romanization systems. This diversity can make it difficult to determine whether an individual on a Chinese-language document is the same as an individual on an English-language document.

In some cases, public records in Malaysia or Singapore might list an alternative romanization as an alias for an individual. For example, a record might list an individual’s name as Ong Teck Chuan and alias as Wang Dequan.

In other cases, it’s not as clear. The same Chinese name 陳偉銘 could be romanized as Chen Weiming in China and Tan Wee Beng in Malaysia. An analyst might not realize that all three names refer to the same person. Even Mandarin-speaking analysts, who would recognize Chen Weiming as a romanization of 陳偉銘, might not know that Tan Wee Beng is a phonetic spelling of the Southern Min pronunciation of the same name.

The Bottom Line

Most people on the Malay Peninsula follow Malay or Chinese naming conventions. However, usage of these naming conventions is not uniform.

In addition, because the peninsula is home to a variety of ethnic groups and languages, these naming conventions can be subject to external influences that can present a serious puzzle, even for experienced analysts.

Analysts working with public records from Singapore and Malaysia should approach the task with epistemic humility. Don’t be quick to jump to conclusions on the basis of a name. Remember that, if an aspect of an individual’s name seems unusual or especially noteworthy, it’s likely that you are simply encountering a practice you haven’t seen before, which may reveal information useful to your investigation.


Public records data, like the data used to power this research, is available through Sayari Search! If you’re curious how this data could drive insights for your team, please reach out here.